IslamMiddle EastPolitics

Wresting Islam from Islamists

By Thursday 14 February 2013 No Comments

Though Morsi was democratically elected as the president… still Egyptians at large are not happy with the prospect of the ideologically outdated and politically heavy-handed Muslim Brotherhood ruling over their homeland.

In a magnificent new essay, “Egypt’s revolution: as it might have been; as it could be”, published on the occasion of the second anniversary of the January 25, 2011, revolution, veteran journalist Hani Shukrallah muses over the course of the Egyptian revolution and in the rhetorical guise of a series of “what if’s” he in fact charts the course of the unfinished revolution for Egypt. In a key passage of this rather long but exceedingly important essay, Hani Shukrallah writes:

Under somewhat different circumstances, and a relatively greater level of political and organisation experience, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition could have been transformed from the largely behind the scenes field leadership that it had been into the core formation of a national revolutionary leadership able to speak openly, clearly and forcefully on its behalf, indeed, to make of itself – to use the common phrase – the sole legitimate representative of the revolution. Theoretically, it had all what it takes to do so. Made up of popular organisations rather than the ideologically-based and largely bankrupt political parties inherited from the Mubarak era, the RYC was also reflective of a broad revolutionary front, encompassing a whole range of political and ideological persuasions, transcending in particular the “secularist-Islamist” divide that had plagued the nation’s growingly diminutive political space for decades. [Emphasis added].

Radically expanding that “diminutive political space”, the Egyptian revolution will go down in history as the paramount occasion when the public sphere became the transformative location where Muslims began wresting Islam from Islamists and thereby reclaimed their religion beyond any such false and falsifying divide.

On a previous occasion and when President Morsi had reached for a power grab beyond what the Egyptian electorate had invested in him, I have already written on the necessity of overcoming this false binary of the “secularist-Islamist” divide of which Hani Shukrallah reports having in fact occurred in the throes of the revolutionary momentum. Between what I theorised and Hani Shukrallah verifies, Egypt is today the epicentre where Muslims are reclaiming their collective faith, retrieving it from its false custodians.

From what Hani Shukrallah reports from the heart of the Egyptian revolution, and I have expanded into the principal theoretical thrust of my book on The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012), a larger frame of reference emerges that the distinguished sociologist Asef Bayat has aptly called “post-Islamism” and I have expanded to call “post-ideological” – in the sense of the historic matrix of the post-colonial knowledge production of the last 200 years. It is in the context of that post-colonial epistemic exhaustion of militant Islamism as we have known it (in combative conversation with Third World Socialism and anti-colonial nationalism) that the current dramatic events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world ought to be understood.

Militant Islamism

After decades of ideological built up and political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood is now the ruling regime in Egypt. Though Mohammad Morsi was democratically elected as the Egyptian president, and although the current constitution was democratically ratified by the majority of Egyptians, still Egyptians at large are not entirely happy with the prospect of the ideologically outdated and politically heavy-handed Muslim Brotherhood ruling over their homeland. It is precisely this paradox that spells out the moment of an epistemic breakthrough.

Those who oppose the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood are not made up of Christians, or Jews, or aliens from another planet – they are also by and large Muslims too. But these Egyptians, born and raised to Muslim parentage, are today burning the offices of Muslim Brotherhood to ground and raising banners that read “People Demand the Overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Just until before the revolution, a mere two years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood thought they were God’s gift to humanity. But today, other Muslims – whatever their political persuasions might be – are comparing Morsi to Mubarak and consider Muslim Brotherhood an impediment to their revolution.

This moment of ideological, moral and political crisis for political Islamism of one brand or another is not exclusive or peculiar to Egypt. It is widespread and symptomatic of something deeper. In Iran, a tyrannical Shia clerical order confiscated a multifaceted revolution and with it the cosmopolitan political culture that had initiated it over 30 years ago and is violently ruling a vast and complicated country that has long since outgrown the outdated ideology of an “Islamic Republic”. Contesting their rule are not the Martians or creatures from any other planet.

The most serious challenge to the rule of the tyrannical clergy in Iran is not by the expatriate monarchist or the equally militant Islamism of the MEK type, or by the discredited expatriate opposition of any other brand. It is in fact by other Muslim revolutionaries – people like Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Abolfazl Ghadyani, Mostafa Tajzadeh, etc., all of them among the founding figures of the Islamic Republic, people who now see their ideals and aspirations betrayed by the current ruling regime.

Above them all towers the figure of the late Ayatollah Montazeri (1922-2009), the very theorist of Velayat Faqih/the Authority of the Jurisconsult who went to meet his creator having made it publicly known that the Islamic republic he helped establish was “neither Islamic nor a republic”.

In Egypt and Iran, Muslims are contesting the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the tyranny of the clerical custodians of the Islamic law. The ludicrous Neocon Americanism of pitting “moderate” versus “radical” Muslims is simply a silly camouflage concealing a far more serious epistemic breakthrough.

Egypt and Iran are only the tip of the iceberg. In the larger Muslim world something radically transformative is taking place. In Syria, the US and its regional allies are busy trying to remote-control the various opposition factions, allowing Assad’s regime to slaughter the militant Islamist groups so that the outcome is more palatable to Washington and Tel Aviv.

Be that as it may, the militant Islamism that wishes to kidnap the democratic aspirations of Syrian people is categorically alien to them, as it is now best evident in the streets and squares of Egypt. Any militant Islamist group that thinks will rule over Syria when Assad is gone will meet the same sort of resistances in Damascus and Aleppo that Muslim Brotherhood is facing in Cairo and Alexandria. Sooner or later, Assad will lose, as will the militant Islamists of all sorts, and a fortiori the imperial will of the US that wishes to micro-manage the Arab revolutions.

Militant Islamism was the co-product of European colonialism yielding to American imperialism. The battle between the militant Islamists and their imperial nemesis has nothing to do with the tsunami of revolutions running through the Arab and Muslim world. They are two breeds apart. The French neo-colonialists are fighting Islamist militia in Mali to secure their access to gold, uranium, phosphates and other minerals – what has that to do with the livelihood of some 14 million-plus human beings, of which some 90 percent are Muslims? Nothing.

In Mali, a new brand of outdated militant adventurists are running amuck and giving the French the perfect subterfuge to reassert their colonial claims on a critical corner of Africa. As evident by their identical abuse of human rights, Ansar Dine, the ruling regime in Mali, and their French backers are coterminous in their using each other as an excuse to legitimise their own brand of violence. The silent 14 million Malians are quietly wresting their collective faith from Ansar Dine and the French alike.

A new generation of resistance

In Europe and the United States, rampant Islamophobia has given rise to a new generation of resistance by Muslims – immigrants or born and raised in their new homelands – who are not going to be intimidated by the vile racism of people like Michele Bachmann, Pamela Geller, or Geert Wilders, and are striking back with reason, sanity and magnificent creativity, categorically, for example, reclaiming the concept of Jihad for asserting their identity against an incessantly hostile and vicious environment.

From the heart of the Arab and Muslim world to Europe and the US, Muslims have entered a world historic moment when neither domestic tyranny, nor vulgar militant Islamism, nor vicious Islamophobia, nor indeed racist imperial hubris prevents them from rethinking their collective faith, and reasserting their collective identity in a vastly different world their parental generations had bequeathed to them.

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Muslims around the world are collectively engaged in a massive global endeavour to reclaim their religion, take it back from the ruling regimes, from the Islamophobes and Islamists alike, from militant mercenaries stealing their liberties and distorting their sacrosanct faith, all way from Mali to Afghanistan.

An average Muslim living in North Africa, in Western Asia, in Europe or the US has absolutely nothing in common with the gangs of militant adventurists who have a turf battle with European or American imperialism, nor will they stand idly by allowing racist European and American Islamophobes decide and define their faith for them. The Islamophobes are identical in their fanatical bigotry with those militants they hate and resemble at one and the same time.

The Islam that the ruling regimes in Iran and Egypt project is the Islam that came to be in the context of anti-colonial struggles of Muslims – and so is the Islam of the Salafis and the Wahhabis and of the Muslim Brotherhood, and as is the Islam of those thugs ranging from Mali to Afghanistan, as crafted and narrated by the US and their allies. This Islam is ideologically outdated, politically outmaneouvered and emotively entirely out of touch with the factual evidence of millions of Muslims living around the world.

Both the ruling regime in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or elsewhere are out of touch with reality, left behind by a post-colonial history that has no longer any use or space for them. They may continue to delude themselves that they are ruling their people. But as evident in the streets of both Tehran three years ago and Cairo today, they are delusional.

In his recent visit to Egypt Ahmadinejad was lectured at al-Azhar by a Sunni cleric against the presumed spread of Shia sect. Scarce anything sillier than such mothball sectarianism can be more alien to both Egyptians and Iranians and their democratic aspirations.

A combination of divisive imperial interventions and the militant Islamism that it engenders has given rise to a horrid cycle of sectarian violence and hostility in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, Shias are being slaughtered. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, people are denied their civil liberties just because they are Shias.

There are high-ranking clerics in Egypt who categorically dismiss the democratic aspirations of the Bahrainis just because they are Shias. Meanwhile, the divisive policies of the US and the conniving interference of the Islamic Republic in Iraq have generated massive resentment on part of Sunnis against Shias, while in Syria the atrocities of the ruling regime are ascribed to the Alawite.

These sectarian hostilities are categorically a byproduct of hostile encounters between imperial militarism on one hand and militant Islamism on the other. Like two parasitical organisms scavenging on an otherwise healthy body they feed on and exacerbate each other.

“Behind these media statements and calls for dialogue,” as Yassin Gaber puts it about the current unrest in Egypt, “the ideological chasm is apparent in every line of each side’s rhetoric. The two sides speak of two different Egypts, and consequently believe they are actively responding to popular sentiment”.

He is of course right – except there are no two Egypts, just one, fiercely in the middle of a historic dialectic giving birth to itself anew, beyond the “religious-secular”, “Islamist-secularist” divide, Muslims wresting Islam from the Islamists and letting it breathe the fresh air of the world at large.

Rescued from the Islamists – their triumphalist politics and totalitarian jurisprudence alike – Islam will resume its multifarious course of creative and critical conversation with the world and will thus become what it has always been to Muslims – integral to their expansive cosmopolitan cultures but not definitive to them.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and the author, most recently, of Being a Muslim in the World (Palgrave, 2013).


Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication by Zed in May 2012.